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Despite three years of wild weather—one winter of record breaking snowfall followed by two years of record drought—Mammoth’s bears have never been better.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Steve Searles, the Town of Mammoth’s wildlife specialist.
“Three years ago, we had one of the biggest ever winters, followed by one of the deepest droughts, followed by another one of the deepest droughts.
“This kind of weather is a red flag for wildlife people, it’s a sign things are probably not going to go too well.
“During the first drought year, we had a 100 percent failure of the dandelion crop and the currant crop and the grass crops dried up early, and we still didn’t have any real bear problems.
“They adapted and so did this community. We made the changes, took the extra time to fasten down the dumpsters, take the last ice chest out of the car, and so did the bears make changes.
“This year, we set a brand new record. We did get the grass crop and the dandelion crop due to the right timing and there are millions and millions of currants out there right now, but this is considered to be a huge drought year, too.
“It should have been a terrible year for bear and human conflicts. And we haven’t had to shoot a single bear.
“I don’t really have the words for it and I wish I did, for how proud I am of my community, of the bears too, especially with all the other crazy and bad stuff going on in town,” he said.
Generations of bears have now learned how to forage like wild bears, he said, and at the same time, generations of Mammoth’s residents and visitors are also getting the message about how to live with bears.
The result—no “problem bears” have had to be shot due to bad behavior in the past two years of extreme environmental stress—has defied the experts, he said.
“I’m tired right now, I always am this time of year, I’m with these bears every day,” he said.
“Sometimes, especially with the sows and their cubs, it’s like herding cats. But I’ve seen a big change in the past several years. The bears’ scat is clean. It’s full of grasses and right now, currants. When I started this work, the vast majority of the bears’ food was human food.
“Today, that’s flipped. That’s how it should be.”
The trick now is to sustain the changes, he said.
“There are thousands and thousands of tourists visiting this town every day and thousands of them have seen our bears and the vast majority of them have done the right thing and that’s why we haven’t had any bear deaths,” Searles said.
“Now, if we can just sustain this for the next 40 days, we are once again going to show the world what’s possible in living with wildlife.”
There are about 28 bears living within the Town of Mammoth’s boundaries, or about one bear per square mile, he said. Of these, three are lactating sows with six cubs between them.
To get through the winter, bears generally need to add between one half and one third of their body weight, at a rate of about 20,000 to 30,000 calories a day—the equivalent of what they will lose in the long, cold winter months
That puts a lot of pressure on all bears to gain weight in the fall, but especially the sows with cubs, he said.
Statistics show that about 51 percent of bear cubs don’t make it through their first year, meaning at least some of the current crop of cubs are not likely to be around next year, he said.
But those statistics have never met Mammoth, he said.
“You know, what’s happening here is already contrary to the science. I’m not saying they will all make it. It’s a brutal world for bear cubs. But I don’t know anymore. Anything seems to be possible. The bears are constantly teaching me things I don’t know.
“We might even end up with a bear as town manager.”